A role for unions in careers education

Nick Cimini and Pete Robertson say careers advice should not be shackled to neo-liberal diktats

Unions are well placed to support career education and guidance for young people. Though the TUC and STUC currently have initiatives of this nature, we believe there is scope for a greater role for unions, and that educationalists and policy makers need to renew their commitment to union involvement. Jeremy Corbyn recently made a similar point when he said: ‘Children should not only learn about … unions and their rights at work, but should be fully equipped to exercise and develop those rights’.

Career education and guidance are provided in schools, colleges and universities to support students to make choices and plan their future. In recent years, the thinking in this field has been dominated by a belief that work is undergoing a transformation, and as a result careers are defined by chronic uncertainty. This is a partial truth. Eurostat data shows that stable and open-ended employment contracts still account for a great deal of employment. It is, however, younger workers that are experiencing greater insecurity. Nearly eight million young people in the EU, representing almost half (43.9%) of employees aged 15 to 24, are on a temporary employment contract.

Educators and policymakers responsible for career education and guidance have promoted the notion that work is unstable and careers are fluid. This logic insists that individuals should be self-reliant, flexible and learn ‘career management skills’, because they cannot look to employers to provide secure career pathways. Similarly, students and the unemployed are encouraged to develop their ‘employability’, i.e., attributes that make them desirable to employers. Through being adaptable, skilled and co-operative they gain security in the labour market, even if no single employer can provide a certain future.

These ideas are okay up to a point, but there is growing disquiet among career education and guidance practitioners that their work has become infused with a neo-liberal agenda. The rhetoric of career management places all the responsibility for dealing with change on the shoulders of individual workers, not on employers.

If we teach young people to be flexible, and they follow this advice, it may not deliver for them a good career and an economically sustainable lifestyle; it may even be setting them up to be disadvantaged at work. For example, young adults encouraged to think that ‘flexible’ employment contracts help them to work around pregnancy or intermittent absence due to a mental health condition can find themselves without maternity or sick pay rights.

Employers are already actively involved in career education, providing speakers, opportunities for industrial visits and work experience amongst other activities. Employer involvement is actively encouraged by educators and policymakers. For example the curriculum guidance for schools produced by Education Scotland in the Career Education Standard (2015) makes explicit a strong role for employers. Though this document highlights the importance of partnership, there is no mention of a role for unions.

This is not an argument for the radicalisation of school pupils. Nor is it not an argument for reducing or replacing employer involvement. There is some evidence that employer involvement can lead to positive outcomes for school pupils. Rather, it is an argument for a rebalancing. Both employer and employee perspectives should be represented in the curriculum.

Unions have a history of involvement in supporting lifelong education – from the colleges established for working people in the late nineteenth century to the ongoing role of learning representatives in workplaces across the UK.

Union involvement in careers education could take many forms. The TUC and STUC have already made a positive start on this through their Unions in Schools initiative. This initiative includes a wide range of teaching materials, videos, lesson plans, etc., that are freely available online – on topics ranging from the history of unions to workers’ rights and responsibilities. The initiative also provides contact details to allow teachers and educationalists to invite union members into schools. More of this is required – for young people and students at all levels of education.

With the growth in non-standard employment contracts, one thing that young people entering into the labour market would benefit from understanding is the different employment status types: workers, employees and the self-employed. Knowledge of these categories, and the rights accrued by each, would support young people to make informed career decisions. Labour market entrants should also be given opportunities to learn about pensions, income tax and national insurance, benefit entitlements, their rights to join a union and collective bargaining.

Teachers, lecturers, career advisers and policymakers need to sit down with unions to consider how best this might be achieved. We envisage teaching unions playing an important role: acting as a bridge between educationalists and the union movement and promoting union initiatives in their own schools, colleges and universities.

Learning materials need adapting for learners of different ages and regular updating to reflect the changing world of work. Fourteen year olds just beginning to think about work will not require the same provision as a final year college or university student. If unions have the know-how and experience of dealing with workplace rights, and educationalists and policy makers commit to working in partnership, then this can only improve the provision of career education and guidance to young people.

Nick Cimini is a lecturer in sociology and Pete Robertson is a lecturer in career guidance, both at Edinburgh Napier University.